By Stuart Hunt
We recognize that school closures and limited access to students will eventually conclude, and that we will be able to resume the wide range of activities that positively impact the lives of our students.
For now, however, along with our regular/altered duties, perhaps we could consider this an “off-season,” just as those in professional sports have. During that time, typically those sports professionals:
- revisit the last season and evaluate the pluses/minuses/successes/losses
- take a “little” time to decompress
- plan and begin a workout regimen
- start a strength training program
- add more play to their workouts
- begin planning the improvements for the next season, and more specifically, what they will do and how the stages to improvement will occur
We are there . . . now. It is time for us to ask significant, prescient questions, such as the following:
- Will we need to alter our present choirs?
- Who will be singing in them?
- What about recruiting? How/where?
- What are choir members’/administrators’/parents’ feelings and attitudes? Are they excited and eager to jump in . . . or . . . ?
- Do we need new materials or programs? Budget for them/when to order/how many or much?
This will be a 3-part series on ChoralNet focusing on some selected essential skills for emerging vocalists, voice students of all ages, and considerations for even seasoned conductors to sharpen and re-envision conducting practice, pedagogy, and planning. The series will include the following:
Part 1: Seriously improving students’ rhythmic and counting mastery
Part 2: Improving your conducting skills and musical focus
Part 3: Suggestions for improving the changing adolescent female voice
Part 1. SERIOUSLY IMPROVE STUDENTS’ RHYTHMIC and COUNTING MASTERY
Practice does not make perfect – it makes permanent, which is why we must be very thoughtful and intentional about what and how we present and practice rhythmic improvement. Careful monitoring of how accurately students demonstrate skill mastery will assure that you do not need to return later in the year to solve what should have been mastered earlier. Without mastery, the bad habits will come back to haunt you and STOP rehearsal . . . until you solve specific skills.
Consider the long-term benefits of being patient, focused politely but intently on mastery of basic skills; recognizing and acknowledging mastery as a short-cut to excellence; and imagine how good it will feel that true music education is happening. The singers will show that to you!
Very intentional, affirming, and instructional about solutions:
- Ask the choir what they heard or experienced.
- Ask what may have caused the mistake.
- Ask for solutions.
- Develop shorter solution protocols to save rehearsal time.
- If you need to master specific skills, then just focus on those. Be content with true accomplishment, congratulate the singers, then reiterate what they just recognized and mastered. Throwing too much material at them will dilute mastery, retention, and transfer.
By probing and allowing students to seek and solve mistakes:
- They gain heuristic skills.
- They gain insights into solutions.
- They gain confidence.
- YOU get feedback on what they have learned from your conducting and pedagogy.
KEYS TO IMPROVE COUNTING
Concept repetition (drill) builds heuristic skills
1 – Eyes ahead to identify and prepare rhythmic “packages.”
As a beginner, we first learned to read…then we read to learn. A key to that was learning and practicing looking ahead. Our eyes must always be ahead of our mouth.
It is the same with reading rhythms…and text…and dynamics…and entrances/exits…and watching the conductor…and…
By 1st or 2nd grade, we learned to recognize words and stopped struggling with syllables. Recognizing and practicing rhythmic “packages”… as band students do, facilitates speed and accuracy. Here are some:
Recognizing the rhythm, wherever it appears in a measure just saves time and allows focus on the other elements.
2 – Keeping a steady beat.
Possibly the best exercise to establish internal timekeeping.
For individuals or choral ensemble, this is fun to learn at first . . . but the real challenge then presents itself:
- Establish a steady pulse, about ♩= 92.
- Sing a full-octave scale ascending and descending, with quarter and eighth notes: Do, do-re-do, do-re-mi-re-do…for a complete octave up AND BACK DOWN.
- DIVIDE the choir into 2 parts and start them 2 beats apart as a round.
- DIVIDE into 3 or 4 parts . . . same thing. (By now they have learned it).
FASTEN SEAT BELTS!
- ONLY sing the scale (keeping internal time): Do…re…….mi…………fa…………………sol etc. (TIP: the beats alternate between up and down beats.) Try it by tapping up and down beats on your knee while you sing.
- Next, after the choir has indeed mastered the skill (be patient until they have), the only person to keep time is the conductor, with your thumb and index finger like a duck-bill . . . but silently . . . so all can see your hand.
- Lastly, no one audibly taps . . . after the conductor SETS time, everyone keeps internal time.
The choir will gain SUCH confidence and joy that they have mastered such a challenging and valuable skill: INTERNAL TIMEKEEPING.
This is an excellent warm-up / focus exercise for an entire choir. It takes patience and persistence to develop, but it DOES build this important skill.
Thank you for reading and, I hope, contemplating your conducting and improvements. Parts 2 & 3 will posit solutions and ask questions we all must address.
For 75 FREE rhythmic exercises – click here.
Stuart Hunt is founder of ToolsforConductors.com, which publishes vocal / choral sight-reading lessons targeted to ages from kindergarten through university, and assessments for band, choir, elementary, and rhythm. Contact: .